I’m comfortable saying it now. I’m not a gym person. I know strength training is important for an endurance athlete or runner, but getting in the gym and lifting weights is at the absolute bottom of my list of training activities.
In the last year, I’ve found HIIT workouts to be helpful by mixing in the cardio with the weights, but even then I struggle to get myself to the gym to lift. My preference to improve strength and speed is to actually do it by running and the best way I know to do that is to run hills. That’s what I did yesterday.
If hill repeats are the secret sauce to improving strength and power in running, why don’t more people do them? It’s likely not because they are too hard. Or because there isn’t a convenient hill nearby. Many people might actually be doing hill repeats as part of their training, but doing them all wrong.
In my experience, most runners don’t understand how to train on hills. They will pick hills that are too long or too steep for their event. They will run them too fast. Or the biggest mistake, they won’t allow enough time to recover between the intervals. If running hills correctly is like a gaining a superpower in your training, running hills incorrectly is just as dangerous and can lead to poor training results, injury and burnout.
Why are hill repeats so effective? It’s a workout that can incorporate and target all the large leg muscle groups to work together, at one time. Hill repeats force all three types of muscle fibers to fire at once: slow-twitch (Type I), intermediate fast-twitch (Type IIa) and fast-twitch (Type IIx).
Slow-twitch produces the least force of the fiber types, but it works aerobically and takes a long time to fatigue. These fibers are the engine for endurance activities. Intermediate fibers produce more force than slow-twitch translating into a long, powerful stride typical of a 5k or 10k event. Fast-twitch fibers produce the most force of all, but they function anaerobically and can only be used in short bursts.
Along with the neuromuscular benefits of hill repeats, they also force you to focus on your form. As you tire, your form can quickly deteriorate so it’s important to pay close attention to cadence, posture and breathing. You lean slightly forward driving from the ankles and keep a high cadence with good knee lift, focusing on landing your foot under your hips. The shorter steps required to get up the grade of the hill should naturally help this positioning.
Finally, hill repeats are hard and can help with your mental toughness and preparation for an event. Complete a good hill interval session and you will feel a bit invincible. Those hills are in your race won’t seem so daunting.
Here is the workout I did yesterday. I’m in the build phase of my training, so I hope to repeat this workout and increase the number of intervals as I gain more fitness.
Do a set of dynamic warm up exercises followed by an easy jog of 15-20 minutes.
Do a few strides on flat ground to get those sprinting muscles activated.
Run up the hill for a quarter mile at near 5k pace or under. I aimed for an RPE of 8 or more. You need to be close to or maxed out during your effort to really stimulate all the muscle fibers and get the benefits. You should be breathing hard with some heavy legs at the top.
Recover by walking or jogging back down the hill. Take your time. At least 2 to 3 minutes. You want to be fully recovered before starting the next interval.
I like to use the first interval as my baseline. Nothing should be slower than the first interval (I missed on the second, but the last 3 were under). Repeat till your interval time starts to fall off or your form really starts to suffer. Better to call it off early than late and raise your risk of injury.
One final note on the timing and recovery of this type of workout. You should not try to do hill repeats or any interval workout while fatigued. You will not reach the necessary threshhold required to get the benefits. Conversely, hill training significantly increases the overall impact forces during the workouts, so be sure to give equal opportunity for post-workout recovery. One session a week is more than enough. You could also supplement this workout with a gym session focusing on squats, lunges and hip strength if you want. Even incorporating these session, you really can’t escape some lifting time if you really want to run to your potential.